School spotlight: James Allen’s Girls’ School

James Higgins visits James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich to see how an institution founded to teach girls “to read and sew” has put social mobility and pastoral support at its heart

Five numbers

Founding year: 1741

Pupils: 1,100 (ages four to 18)

Fees per term: £6,267 (day)

Teachers: 157

Bursaries: 16–20% of pupils on large bursaries

“Our school was started in 1741, in a room at the back of a pub,” a staff member jokingly explains as she leads me through the grounds of James Allen’s Girls’ School (JAGS). Stretching back from the road in the heart of a serene neighbourhood, the school is a microcosm of this pocket of South London.

Like its leafy environs, the school boasts generous open spaces. The buildings, like those in the rest of Dulwich, are a medley of eras and styles. A feature quite unique to JAGS, my guide assures me, is the railway line which cuts a path through the campus and the stone bridge which links the school’s 22-acre grounds on either side. Trains rattle beneath us as we pass pupils crossing to lunchtime sports.

Breaktime is in full swing as I’m walked through the bustling campus. We pass the dining hall – which was once the school’s swimming pool – where, at the far end, girls hurry through the Deep End Café. We poke our heads into the chaplain’s office where a basset hound called Lina lies slumped in the doorway. My visit comes just before the summer holidays and, in nearly every classroom we pass, pupils are busy finishing projects, some for the last time as a JAGS student.

We’re really proud of our diversity here at JAGS. I always say to people that we are in south London and we are of south London

It is not just the year 13s who are gearing up for the next step; headteacher Sally-Anne Huang, who has led the school since September 2015, is preparing to depart to become the first female head of St Paul’s School in Barnes. After four years here, she conveys the school’s ethos with passion.

“We’re really proud of our diversity here at JAGS. I always say to people that we’re in south London and we’re of south London. It’s a really lovely, liberal, open-minded, forward-thinking community and we work to represent that.” More ethnically diverse than stereotypes would have you believe, and more cosmopolitan, too, JAGS has a reputation for supporting social mobility.

“If you walk around the school,” Sally-Anne says, “you’ll see that we’re diverse in terms of faith, cultural background and socio-economic diversity, because we benefit from the foundation, we have 16–20% of the girls here on large bursaries. And it’s an 85% average bursary. Once you do that, you become a melting pot. It makes them incredibly tolerant and accepting of one another. It was one of the main reasons I wanted to come here, the combination of a very powerful girls’ education in a very liberal and diverse community leads to that.”

“Our major priority is to keep our bursary provision as high as we possibly can. There are fiscal challenges to the independent sector that may be over the horizon, so we want to make sure we are really robust in terms of that provision.

“We’re in the process of launching a fundraising campaign directly for bursaries and there seems to be an enormous appetite for that from our current parent body and from our alumni. We’re very lucky that we were able to fund so many bursaries through the foundation, but we think there may be a greater need going forward.”

The foundation, The Dulwich Estate, was founded by Edward Alleyn in 1619 to offer opportunities to disadvantaged children. Two other girls’ schools are partners within the Estate: The Central Foundation Girls’ School in east London and the St Saviour’s and St Olave’s Schools Foundation in Elephant and Castle.

400 years on

As the 400th anniversary of the foundation nears, the schools are collaborating for an extra special event this September. As well as keynote speakers, including local MP Helen Hayes, the event features an all-female contemporary dance company, with Arts Council support, who will perform with the girls. As a deliberately ironic comment on the school’s founding mission – which was to educate girls “to read and sew” – the event features contemporary textile projects.

16–20% of JAGS girls are on bursaries

“We’re very different girls’ schools with different backgrounds, but we have much more in common than separates us, because we’re really about women’s education,” Sally-Anne explains.

The school’s facilities underline its commitment to a “dynamic, all-embracing approach to education”. The new Community Music Centre contains the 500-seat Vaughan Williams Auditorium – named after the school’s famous former music teacher – which provides a home for the South London Youth Orchestra and numerous other community groups. The school’s library, with its glass-roofed, octagonal turret extension, is a breathtaking study space. The school’s sporting facilities include an ozone swimming pool, dance studios and climbing walls, and the design and technology suites are even equipped with 3D printers.

Here, girls disproportionately choose STEM subjects over humanities and languages. “One of the ironies of a single-sex school,” Sally-Anne says, “is I think we talk about gender last.” STEM uptake is not hampered by gender conformity, and maths remains the most popular option at A-level. The pupils here have won national STEM competitions including the Young Scientist of the Year and TeenTech.

Against this strong academic background, the school has invested heavily in pastoral support in the last four years. Using CPOMS, the school’s pastoral team tracks the girls in the same way their teachers track academic progress and the school has two visits a week from a CAMHS counsellor. “Although most of the counselling will be for very natural things like bereavement or divorce,” Sally-Anne says, “we have a structure to intervene quickly if it’s something more worrying or long-term. I think, historically, JAGS would have been known as a very academic school, and it is still is, but I’d be keen for people to understand that there’s a huge pastoral background underpinning that.”

Its founder may have aspired to teach young women “to read and sew”, but in the 21st century, the current custodians of James Allen’s legacy have given themselves a much wider remit. There’s one thing that has not changed at JAGS – a 400-year-old goal to make the best education accessible.

Five facts

1. James Allen’s Girls’ School is the oldest girls’ independent school in Greater London

2. Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst were both music teachers at the school, which continues to maintain a fine musical pedigree

3. The school was founded as the Dulwich Reading School in two rooms at the back of a pub in Dulwich Village

4. Alumnae include Anita Brookner, Sally Hawkins and Charlotte Ritchie

5. It is part of the Southwark Schools Learning Partnership, with 12 local state schools and three other independent schools, sharing good practice and joint opportunities

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